When Tego Calderón released his 2003 debut El Abayarde, reggaetón's fortunes started to turn. The disc gave the genre much needed artistic credibility, attracting listeners from beyond the loyal Puerto Rican fan base. Ironically, Calderón was never much of a reggaetón fan, and said he only used the irresistible, Jamaican dance hall derived beat to finally overcome years of rapping in relative obscurity. In August, Calderón returned with The Underdog/El Subestimado (Atlantic/Jigirri), a landmark album that adds to the maturing hip hop legend. Tego recently invited us over for a chat about the new disc.
VH1: Is this record a little bit like a comeback?
Tego Calderón: Well, I address that in the first song, "Cómo me llamo yo?" (What's My Name?). In reality I had disappeared. I hadn't made a record in three years or so. But it wasn't like I was desperate because I didn't see that anybody was taking over my space. I didn't see that anybody was doing what I was doing.
VH1: The first single, "Los Maté" (I Killed Them), has an unusual sample.
Tego Calderón: Yeah, it's from an old Mexican song called "El Preso Número 9" (Prisoner #9). DJ Nesty came up with the tape of that sample, and I loved it because it made me think I would return and the kids would be inspired.
VH1: Those lyrics, "I killed them/But I don't have bad intentions/I did what I had to do" reminded me of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sherriff."
Tego Calderón: Oh yeah? I hadn't looked at it that way. It's really just a song about having high self esteem in the battle. I'm also really excited about the next song, "Mardi Gras," because of all its blues elements. I have an incredible love of the blues, especially old school, like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker. I don't know if you would call her blues, but Billie Holiday is my favorite.
VH1: I once read that Frank Sinatra wanted to sound like Billie Holiday.
Tego Calderón: Billie Holiday I would compare more to La Lupe [Cuban torch singer]. It was that feeling of sorrow she conveyed. Billie also had that sadness, when she'd sing something like "I don't know why ... I'm feeling so sad."
VH1: "SloMo'" really mixes rhythms in a way I don't think I've heard before.
Tego Calderón: I like this song because you can hear the [fivebeat, AfroCuban] clave rhythm in the background. I'm playing the tambourine here. I'm slowly but surely getting myself into the musical mix. I'm also singing in English here. I say "No, no, don't make me go slomo'/You might not understand but it's hot though."
VH1: Do you think reggaetón needs to appeal to English speakers?
Tego Calderón: Well I don't really have any gringos on the album, except Buju Banton, but he's different because he's Caribbean. I never wanted to be like them or get into their thing. But I'm not a pure Latino I just don't need to go on David Letterman to get where I am.
VH1: What about how reggaetón has suddenly been embraced by the Latino mainstream?
Tego Calderón: Some artists didn't even want to be identified as Latino and now they're the most Latino of all, and they want to do reggaetón. It's become kind of a joke. The other day I see [Argentinean brother-sister duo] Pimpinela doing a song with a reggaetón track, and it's like 'Oh my god, this is too much, man.' I don't see much creativity in the genre apart from a few exceptions. I think Wisin & Yandel are very creative kids they keep it simple, it's for the young dancer, for the club kid. I respect those guys a lot. There's a lot of good new blood, but I think what's been coming out isn't the best. It's a little too repetitive. That's my way of seeing it.
VH1: Well a lot of people see it that way.
Tego Calderón: It's reality I'm frank, you understand? I've always said that I don't like reggaetón. I've said it because in Puerto Rico they know it's true. I consider myself a rapper who does reggaetón sometimes.
VH1: Which producers did you collaborate with this time?
Tego Calderón: I have DJ Nelson, Danny Fornaris, Echo, Major League, DJ Joe, DJ Nesty, Luny Tunes, Salaam Remi, Cookee. It's almost the same chemistry that was on the first one. The guest rappers are Voltio, Don Omar, Eddie Dee, Yandel, Buju, Chyno Nynno and my man, Oscar D'León.
VH1: That song is a classic, right?
Tego Calderón: Yeah, it was recorded in 1972, and it's called "Llora, Llora" (Cry, Cry).
VH1: I like that your salsa songs are pure salsa, and not that hybrid salsatón.
Tego Calderón: That stuff is a piece of crap. When I see an artist like Tito Nieves in a video with hair extensions, I'm like, 'Damn.' They called me to do a reggaetón tribute to Héctor Lavoe, a whole album with his original voice. DJ Nelson is doing it. He's a salsero at heart, so he'll get it right, but you hear some of those records and the clave is all crossed up, because the young producers don't know. But salsa is going to have its moment, it's coming back. Ismaelito River is doing some really good, hard salsa.
VH1: It seems to me your salsa voice sounds like Cheo Feliciano's.
Tego Calderón: Well, they've compared me to everyone. But Feliciano is my dad's favorite. I have a song for him on the new album, "A Mi Papá" (For My Father). It's a kind of letter to him. This is the only song I've written in one sitting; it all came out at once.
VH1: How many more albums do you owe Atlantic Records?
Tego Calderón: There's The Underdog, and I have a new artist Chyno Nynno, and that one will come out soon. Then John Singleton asked me to do the soundtrack for this new movie I'm in called Illegal Tender, and he said he'd do it on Jiggiri. But after that, now I've got my studio, I'm going to make other music albums. I really don't want to do any more reggaetón songs. I want to sit down and create real music I've had that need for a long time.
VH1: Do you want to do some kind of fusion or more traditional stuff?
Tego Calderón: I'm thinking about doing rumba, bomba, plena, the blues, my way, with my style, and all kinds of music, the way I've been doing it, but a little more risky and more traditional. I'd like to do a record more for adults; it would fulfill me more as a person and a musician. If I don't like reggaetón, why the hell should I do it? I'm trying to find myself and do the things I want to do in my heart and not what the business wants me to do.
VH1: How did it affect you to do the VH1 special, "Bling: A Planet Rock," about the diamond industry in Sierra Leone, Africa?
Tego Calderón: It was deep, man. It made me decide to take off all my jewelry, and I feel more like me, more connected with myself. The response from the people back home was incredible. Even the youth has been saying, 'I took off my bling, to hell with it!' I never thought how are you going to tell a boxer to take off his gloves? So I realized that one's voice really has weight. I'm making a difference, and people are feeling it.
VH1: Is all the stuff about rivalries overblown in reggaetón?
Tego Calderón: MCs are going to be at war because singers are dumb f**ks, and they have all kinds of a******s at their sides who don't have anything to lose. But look what happened to Biggie and Tupac. Do you think it's necessary to die over music? It's ridiculous. In the past, I would have to battle with people, over style and everything. But I joked about it; I didn't take it so personally. It amuses me, the beef between Don Omar and Yankee. Those guys were friends since they were little. One time I had a beef with Yankee and Don made me fix things up with him now they're saying shit about each other. It's a lot of nonsense over ego and stupidity. I don't have anything to fear in lyrical battling. The ones who battled most, I buried them. I have nothing to prove to anyone and I'm not with that anymore.
VH1: What do you think is going to happen with reggaetón?
Tego Calderón: I don't think it's going anywhere. Obviously it's going to lose a little momentum, it's already lost some. I think we need people to come from everywhere and new blood, new ideas, fresh music, new producers. They keep saying that it's fading, that it sucks they've been saying that since 1992. You go to a club and people love it because the dance is an incredible sexual contact. And who doesn't like that? It's easy to dance. It's not something like salsa, where you have to know all these steps. Women love it even if they don't speak Spanish. I don't know what it has, it gets inside them.